Boy with his mom on a family farm near Rogersville, MO

What is “generationally sustainable” agriculture?

“Sustainability” is a really big buzzword in agriculture right now. It’s critical from an environmental and conservationist standpoint. Responsible farmers ask questions like, “How can agriculture behave and operate in those environmental spaces so we use the land right without depleting it?” But we need to preserve more than just the land.

What does generationally sustainable agriculture look like?

For us, it means eight generations of our family have been farming locally, together, for over 150 years.

A group photo of the Alexander family
Pictured from the back left are: Keith Baxter (7th generation farmer, brother/uncle), Mark Alexander (husband), Kevin Wilkerson (6th generation farmer, great uncle). Front: Travis Alexander (8th generation farmer), Emma Alexander (7th generation farmer, sister/mother), and Lucas Alexander (8th generation farmer).

3 keys to saving farms for the future

The concept of generationally sustainable agriculture resonates with me, because if we don’t protect our farms there will be nothing for the next generation of farmers. We must protect the entire farming business in three dimensions:

We have to leverage and balance all three of these components continuously for a local farming business to be sustainable from one generation to the next.

  1. Environmental: We must be good stewards of the land and other natural resources.
  2. Economic: We must be good business people, with sustainable fiscal plans.
  3. Social: building good relationships with the consumers in the local community.

With the proper planning, when I retire there will be a fully operational farm business for my family to take over and move forward. If any of those three qualities (environmental, economic, and social) aren’t nurtured, then the next generation is left in a lurch. For example:

  • If the land is depleted
  • Or there is excessive debt
  • Or there is no dependable market for the produce
  • Or we haven’t made good relationships with our consumers, then …

Those who inherit our farm have to start over from scratch. In other words, a responsible farmer doesn’t ruin the industry for the next generation.

Your kids might not be cut out for agriculture, that might not be their passion. But you should at least create an opportunity for them to take over in the future if they choose to. All business owners should.

Grow the farm, for generations to come

Farmers often have a hard time bringing their adult children into the business. Kids who go off to college may come back to a farm that is only generating enough income for mom and dad. There are more fast-paced and diverse opportunities elsewhere. But even if the kids wanted to go back to the farm, there’s not enough income for them. 

Or maybe the family farm doesn’t need two tractor drivers, so the child goes to town to get a job. The likelihood of returning to the farm is drastically reduced. This has been a struggle for many farm families.

The world needs farming and agriculture, because we need food, fiber, and fuel. We can’t minimize that.

Make an intentional plan

We must be intentional about how we pass this lifestyle on to our children. For example, when the children are old enough, we can give them a little land to call their own, let them take on some responsibility. Teach them some basic business practices. Present the industry in a positive light.

Engage your children now, and create an exit plan for the future. That way, when you retire, you don’t just sell the land and abandon the business. You pass the entire lifestyle on to the next generation.

About Emma Alexander

Family-farming guru Emma Alexander at her family farm near Rogersville, MO

Emma Alexander owns and operates CopperTop Legacy Farm in Southwest, Missouri, along with her husband and their two boys. She also owns a retail greenhouse in Rogersville, Missouri, under her nickname “The Unique Flower Farmer.” She advocates for local farms, local businesses, and traditional values.

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